My summer road trip (on two wheels)

(by Elle Smith)

I seem to have got into the wonderful habit of doing a cycle tour for a week or two each summer – this year was no exception. In late August I packed up my tent and sleeping bag and cycled off to Portsmouth and thence to France. It was a glorious 8 days of cycling which took me through Normandy, Brittany, the Atlantic coast of Payee de la Loire and finally into the high and hilly Limousin for a nice sit down/ sleep before training back. Here are a random collection of thoughts I had and things I learned:

1. Men’s and women’s saddles are in fact different for a reason. No, its not just a Victorian throw back or an attempt by cycle companies to get more money out of us as I had previously thought. We ARE anatomically different (surprise surprise) and I would NEVER cycle 800km (or even 50km) on a men’s saddle again, it was VERY uncomfortable and I spent much of my time trying to find new and inventive ways sitting or not sitting on my saddle. I am now in the market for a women’s version.


2. Dijon mustard goes with everything. Yes, everything, it is a wonder food.

3. Oringina is cycling fuel, and taste a lot better in France than it does in England.

4. I have finally understood the point of cleats – and (mostly) got over my fear of being clipped in to something with wheels. Going uphill (and there were a lot of hills) with a loaded bike and getting the forward trust with the up-pull of the pedal stroke as well as the downward push makes you go a lot faster. I’m converted.

5. Two tips on cycle touring in France – if you plan to take any TGV trains with your bike (and this is pretty easy and not stressful) book cycle spaces when you book your ticket. You can do it here ( Michelin 1:150,000 road maps are the best I’ve found for route planning (I always bring a highlighter so I can mark my route as I go along and feel astonished how far I can go on a bike).


Turns out this is my 5th cycle tour in France, and its quiet roads and diverse scenery (not to mention the good food and cheap ferries) keep drawing me back. But I think I’ll spread my wings go somewhere even more exotic next year, like, I don’t know…Germany!

Bike Film Night for Womens Day

Broken Spoke Bike Coop in Oxford is hosting its second Bicycle Film Night in honour of International Women’s Day!

Join us at OARC on March 9th to hear Emily Chappell, 2012 Travel Blogger of the Year speak about women and bicycles around the world.

Then stay for “Racing is Life”, a film about the irrepressible Beryl Burton.

Men, women, children, and teddy bears are all welcome!

New DIY bike shop in Oxford

It’s been a long time comin’ but the doors of Oxford’s newest community bike workshop are soon to open.

Broken Spoke Logo

The Broken Spoke Bike Coop has been a labour of love for the past 9 months and we’ve definitely got to know our city in that time by organising nomadic bike workshops and maintenance courses. But on Feb 1 we launch our new permanent space right in the heart of the city with more tools and spares than you can shake a stick at. It will be a home for cyclists, bike lovers, creatives, mechanics, environmentalists and everyone who ever wanted to just want to just grab a spanner and have a go. There will be maintenance courses and open workshops galore; our ever popular women and transgender evening Beryls’ Night will relocate to the new gaff; and of course there will be copious amounts of tea and biscuits. So do pop in and say hello if you happen to be biking past.

Beryl Burton drama on BBC radio

Catch this amazing drama about the life of Beryl Burton on BBC Radio written by and starring Maxine Peake.
Beryl Burton was an English racing cyclist and one of Britain’s greatest athletes. She dominated women’s cycle racing in the UK, winning more than 900 domestic championships and seven world titles, and setting numerous national records. She set a women’s record for the 12-hour time-trial which still stands today (and exceeded the men’s record for two years).
She inspired spokeswomen’s very own Beryl’s Night run by the wonderful women of the Broken Spoke Bike Coop in Oxford.

**Guest Post** Anxiety and Bike Mechanics

I was an urban rider from age 23-26 in Minneapolis, MN where I was born and raised. I was working in my field of passion for a social service non-profit after having graduated with a Business Communications degree. My job was to empower low income women with independent living skills. Despite the love of my job, I increasingly grew dissatisfied with the state of my country, and the world. This dissatisfaction grew so large another radical friend and I decided to quit our jobs, take a train to Portland and bike south. That was the extent of our plan. We saved and bought gear over the next two months for the tour. Depending on what part of the world you live in this may or may not seem radical, but where we’re from, people don’t do stuff like this. My friend and I had never biked over 10 miles, and neither of us were especially camping savvy, however we were determined. A bike shop proprietor in Minneapolis who found it just as important to mentor community members, as to sell bikes let us volunteer in exchange for sweet custom bikes and a few important lessons in bike mechanics.
Two months after arriving in Portland by train, we landed in San Francisco. We had seen many things, met many people and most importantly learned much about ourselves. I’d never felt so free. The loose plan was to bike to Mexico, however my friend and I decided after two months of being inextricably linked on our bikes it was time to part ways. She hitchhiked the rest of the way down the coast, and I was chillin’ in San Francisco with nowhere concrete to sleep, the loss of having just broken up with a partner, but also the feeling I could accomplish anything. I called a friend I had made chatting with at San Francisco’s prominent bicycle co-op when I had been fixing my bike. I informed him I was staying in San Francisco to try and establish myself by getting a job, apartment, etc. He invited me to start volunteering at the co-op as a Greeter.
I quickly became ingrained in the cycling community of San Francisco through the co-op, as most of my friends arose from this network. After 3 months of volunteering, I was eligible to become a staff member. The remarkable sheen the bike tour waxed over my life view had not worn off, and I was still excited about everything including learning more about bicycle mechanics. Most would say I am a very independent woman, and with this comes a strong desire to empower myself with skills. I followed the official procedure and posted to the listserv I had fulfilled the requirements needed to apply for staff, and that I would like the vetting process to start. This was an opportunity for staff members to vouch for me which would lead to staff status, but also for any objections. I received enthusiastic thumbs up from a handful of people, but one of the 4 female staff members raised opposition to my staff status saying it promoted the wrong message having a greeter (versus a mechanic) who was female. People spoke up on my behalf, and one of the counter arguments was I had a desire to learn mechanics, which was true.
1.5 years later and I still had a very small working knowledge of bicycle mechanics. I still feel awful not fulfilling the promise to the co-op, but ultimately to myself. I’d started work at a bike shop, but ultimately quit because at the time I felt like I didn’t have enough base knowledge of mechanics. I’d learned enough to get by in the bike world, and to be a great greeter at the co-op, but this desire to be skillful in an area that would afford me independence with my cycling lifestyle was not fulfilled. You’re probably wondering WHY I wouldn’t just learn the mechanic skills.
I experienced performance anxiety so high it was debilitating. I couldn’t concentrate on what someone was explaining to me, and when I did try to perform some repair my mind and body was so clouded by anxiety I just couldn’t do it right. The anxiety was exacerbated by the fear this would happen again when I tried the next time. Most would call me above average intelligent, athletic and sociable. The reason for this was I hid my anxiety well by avoiding situations, ie. learning mechanics, where I knew the fear would creep into my performance.
This anxiety and fear has plagued me since I was a teen, it still does. Every day I push myself trying to overcome it – I’ve tried everything from therapy, drugs, forcing myself into uncomfortable situations, and striving for holistic health. It affected me less after the West coast bike tour because I felt fulfilled, and truly free and happy. Other than that experience though, the deviation in levels of anxiety has been negligible. When I agreed to do this guest post, I knew this anxiety arose from my relationship with my father, but I didn’t know why. I wanted to challenge myself to understand why, and use this as a cathartic means to work through these fears that prevent me from being as empowered, happy, and skillful as I could be. It’s exhausting to have a constant defense mechanism to hide a part of yourself, but unfortunately the fear of humiliation, a symptom of anxiety, instills in me a stronger desire to keep hiding rather than let the fortress come down.
Having dug deep, I’m starting to make the connection between the relationship with my father and this anxiety. I love my dad very much, and that is why the hurt he’s caused me runs so deep. My father (and mother) afforded me a very comfortable middle class lifestyle, a partially paid college education, and a home free of physical and emotional violence. However, despite having lived with him for more than 18 years I have no clue who my father is. He is very closed off emotionally. We have a pattern that has been played out hundreds of times throughout my lifetime, up until the very present. I want something from my father – be it a resource or support for my decisions in life, however if he doesn’t agree with it he won’t even give me an inch. His coldness in delivering this message causes me to get emotional. I then see my emotions push him even further away. It hurts even more because my emotions are a signal to him that it’s ok to be vulnerable and to open up, but he doesn’t so I end up being the only hurt one. The coldness and disapproving nature increases, and at this point I give all my power away because all I want from him is love and support and I am completely vulnerable, but he won’t give it to me. We eventually come to some sort of conclusion, as we are a family that desires to appear reasonable. I think to myself I will never allow myself to be vulnerable again, because it always ends in powerlessness and hurt. Unfortunately, I can’t follow through with this because I desire approval from this person I am connected to in one of the most intimate ways – we are a direct product of the fabric of our parents. We are linked in such a powerful way and so this drama repeats. I realize my anxiety rears up when I feel vulnerable. It’s my bodies way of trying to protect me after such a damaging footprint has been established after 28 years of being hurt when I make myself vulnerable. To learn something new, you have to open yourself up immensely – take a risk at failing or looking stupid. The anxiety prevents me from taking this risk, but in some cases especially learning new skills the risk is worth it however my body hasn’t learned this yet.
I know many of my friends in the bike community in San Francisco couldn’t make sense of why this outspoken, independent strong woman wouldn’t learn mechanics. It didn’t connect in their mind, nor mine. Writing this article was a big step for me in testing the waters of vulnerability. I hope I will be able to report back to you in due time I’ve been able to work through some of this and do myself justice by allowing myself to be empowered with skills that complement the lifestyle I love in cycling.
Brought to you by bikesnbits

Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop – A co-op run by women!

We opened Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop back in October 2011. Our project is run by women and our aim is to be a friendly, approachable, not intimidating bike space for the community.

We run a tool club where people can come once a week (Wednesday evenings) and use our workshop, tools, books and get support from us to repair their own bicycles. The tool club is run on a voluntary basis and so members only have to pay only £10/£15 to become members for a year. We’re also a workers co-operative hoping to raise enough money to give a decent wage to the three of us. To that end we run a repairs service, sell parts and accessories, deliver maintenance workshops, offer Dr. Bike services and soon will offer Bikeability – with a focus on empowering adult women to feel confident and assertive on the roads. We run women-only maintenance courses and tool club sessions for all those who identify as women. We find that cycling is often a very male dominated activity, not only in numbers (more men than women cycle), but also in attitudes. Too often it seems you have to be aggressive, over assertive and over confident to ride your bike. We find that this affects both women and men and whilst offering women-only specific activities, we hope to be friendly and approachable so that men that don’t conform to the male cyclist stereotype, and that may not have experience with mechanics or might also feel unconfident welcomed in our space.

So far our experience has been very positive. We’ve had more and more people interested in our space and even though numbers are not quite adding up yet to pay ourselves a salary, we feel we’re on the right track! The best bits are the interaction with people, seeing how excited people get when they start seeing the bicycle as being made of different parts and how you can learn to take care of it. Even discovering how hard tyres inflated to the right pressure are supposed to be makes people feel so excited about their machines and makes them engage and love them in a different level.

For us feminism is deeply needed in the cycling world to make cycling inclusive, approachable and available to all. We believe cycling is not intrinsically feminist or sustainable and so we feel we need to create and facilitate a truly feminist, inclusive and sustainable cycling culture. For that we need to reflect on the attitudes surrounding cycling – like we said above – and on the cycling industry and how and where our machines and the parts that make them run are produced. We’re committed to make people think of their bicycles as valuable objects that are worth repairing and maintaining and that can last for a life time if we invest in them. This is a reflection we need to make to many customers. Often people ride their bikes for years and years until they are completely knackered. Then, bringing them up to scratch can be slightly expensive and they think they’re better off buying a new bike. Explaining that if you maintained your bicycle regularly you may spend no more than £30/£50 a year, often makes them see that keeping a good frame and investing (time and/or money) on it is worth it.

We’d like to see the British cycling industry alive and kicking again, not only to make the production of bicycles and bicycle parts more local and sustainable but also because that could create much needed local and useful jobs. That’s why we’re committed to try to stock British made and ecologically sound products – such as Carradice panniers or Green Oil. However, the processes of production and distribution are in the hands of big companies that have a lot of power and make it difficult to access the products we’d like to purchase or that we’d like to see produced. But, whenever possible, we’re committed to work with smaller companies that are more local and work at a more human scale. We dream of a co-operative of bike projects and co-operatives strong enough to work towards that change. For that, we just need to hang on in there and try to spread our ideas and hope that the local cyclists and cyclists to be trust us and come to us.

Oxford foraging bike ride

This week (16-23 june) is Oxford Bike Week. To mark the occasion we took to the saddle and we went looking for free food on the toe paths and in the hedge-rows of oxford. We found loads of elderflower, lime leaves, nettles, horthorn, berries, poppies, some fungus and even pre-packaged sandwiches and salads from a well-known food chain’s bin (true urban foraging!).

Yummy elderflower

Grown ivy on the toe path

Lime leaves by the river

Cycling to sufferage

When I saw that the Women’s Library in Whitechapel were putting on an exhibition about the role of bikes in women’s liberation I thought – at last! Cycling played a massive part in my personal liberation and realisation of the power of my body. This machine gave me gave me freedom and my experiences as a female cyclist were a fundamental part of my politicisation and to this day form the basis of much of my activism. Many women around me have similar stories. So it stands to reason (in my mind) that they played a role in the movement for equality for women in general but there has actually been very little research on this – and I’m talking as someone whose been looking. There’s plenty of books on the history of bikes which make some reference to women’s cycling and even some on the role of cycling in creating wider social change but had found nothing specifically about how they have helped change the role of women in society, until now.

Bicycling-for-ladies magazine cover

The historian responsible for this project is Sheila Hanlon and last Friday night she gave a talk all about it to a packed out lecture theatre at the Women’s Library. The crowd felt like a real cycling sisterhood with people I knew or recognised from plenty of bike/ activist projects and even the grandson of a cycling suffragette. Sheila gave us a fascinating insight into how the suffrage movement used the bike as an organising and protest tool in its own right: from forming ‘bike brigades’ who cycled to country towns and villages recruiting new members, to blockading politicians cars, using old bike parts as fake bombs, organising cycling parades and even a nationwide pilgrimage involving bikes (not unlike the ‘caravans’ used in environmental campaigning today). Unsurprisingly, loads of prominent women’s right activists, such as the Pankhurst’s, were avid cyclists. But while the development of men’s cycling as mode of transport and leisure pursuit went without much public comment and certainly no moral outcry the same was not true for women. From the very begining, the acceptability of women riding bikes was an issue of public debate. This intensified in the Victorian and Edwardian era’s when the bike came to symbolise the ‘new women’: independent, mobile, confident and therefore dangerous to the social order of things. So much so, that the organisers of an anti-Suffrage rally in Cambridge burnt an effigy of a women on a bike. This goes to show it was not just that bikes were practically useful for campiagning for women’s rights but also that the very fact of riding a bike gave women such new power that it frightened the patriarchal order.

Sheila’s research is so important because is shows that bikes can and have enabled women to challenge and change their place in the world even when efforts were made to discourage and de-legitimise our right to ride. She put it perfectly when she said ‘the bike shows the connection between the physical and the political in the history of women’s liberation.’

Women are still a small percentage of the cycling population and more prone to accident and injury on the road than men but rather than blame this on negative assumptions of feminine behaviours like timidity and passivity ‘Cycling to Suffrage’ highlights the historical nature of the social prejudice which has contributed to our secondary position on the road. It was brilliant that London Bike Kitchen’s Women and Gender variant (W.a.G) night and Breeze women’s network got a shout out at the end as examples of projects which have taken up the baton for the next generation of women cyclists (of course I’d like to add Spokeswomen and Beryls’ Night to that list!) building the skills, confidence and acceptance of women on the road. I left with a sense of connectedness to all the pioneers of women’s cycling and Suffrage campaigners who have got us this far and reminded that every women on a bike is a trail blazer.

Don’t miss this exhibition! (it finishes Sept 8 2012)

Museum from the Future…in town from 2042

    Spokeswomen Oxford have teamed up with actofactivism, Beryls’ Night and Shtig to bring you an interactive installation for the imagination.

    Museum from the Future Logo

    When? 1st-4th June 2012

    Where? Arts at the Old Fire Station, 40 George Street, Oxford, OX1 2AQ.

    Sometimes its hard to imagine that ordinary people can change the world. But just look at the history of the car and prepare to be empowered and astonished.

    The year is 2042. Discover the car: legendary machine that nearly ruined our planet – but didn’t because people like us kicked the petrol addiction.

    Ever wonder how we achieved the sustainable society that we are lucky enough to live in now? Step back in time to 2012 to discover where it all began.

    Introducing: ‘Museum from the Future’ a pop-up exhibition with real artefacts from the bygone motoring age, an interactive history of the downfall of the car, and a programme of events exploring Oxford’s role in the global transition to a post-oil, post-car world.

    Featuring all your favorite bicycle technology such as bike-chariots, bike-cinema, bike-sound systems and more.

    Get a taster of whats in store: The rise and fall of the car – a film from the future

WaG night launch at London Bike Kitchen

6-9pm Mondays, starting 2nd April

Monday night at London Bike Kitchen is W.a.G. night (Woman and Gender-variant). WaG is a dedicated space for women and gender-variant people to fix their own bikes, with mechanics on hand for help and advice. We also run (mixed gender) introductory courses (on other days) for people who are very new to bike mechanics, or want to refresh their skills. WaG includes a taught element every week, including adjusting gears, brakes, puncture repair and bike checkover.

What do we mean by ‘women and gender-variant’?
Anybody who identifies as a woman, or anybody who has a non-normative gender identity. This could mean transgender, genderqueer, ftm, mtf, transwomen, transmen, or any of the many other various identities which are not ‘male’ or ‘female’ in the traditional sense.

Why ‘women and gender-variant’ only?
Growing up, women aren’t generally encouraged to fix bikes or given access to knowledge about mechanics in general. As a result, women can feel like they can’t fix stuff themselves, or think it’s a man’s domain. All this can also be true for people with gender-variant identities. When most mechanics are men, there is a kind of heirarchy of knowledge, whereby the men fix the bikes and teach the women, and the women watch the men fix the bikes (and learn little), or are taught by the men. We want to do away with all this, and create a space where you are empowered to learn about your bike, share what you know (or just get on with it yourself!), all without the pressure and machismo that sometimes exists in male populated spaces. We offer a stand and tools, and some help and advice when you get stuck. If you’re really new to bike mechanics, you might want to take one of our introductory courses to get started.